Kansas University's Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art turns 15 years old this month, and more than 200 of the museum's most ardent patrons gathered Saturday night to blow out birthday candles.
Several Spencer supporters flew in for the black-tie bash in the Kansas Union Ballroom. KU officials, local community leaders and politicians, and a foreign dignitary chatted as a slide presentation showed black-and-white images from the Spencer's opening gala in January 1978.
"I wouldn't say that the museum has come a long way, because it was terrific 15 years ago," said Andrea Norris, museum director. "We continue to do important scholarly exhibitions. We just can do them on a larger scale now."
Hosts for Saturday's bash were Norris; KU Chancellor Gene Budig and his wife, Gretchen; and former KU Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe and his wife, Barbara. The gala was sponsored by the Friends of the Art Museum.
CONSTRUCTION of the Spencer was made possible by a significant donation from Helen Foresman Spencer. Barbara Wescoe, who founded the Gallery Guild support group that became Friends of the Art Museum, said she always knew the Spencer would fulfill its potential as a top-flight university museum.
"Helen Spencer was a perfectionist, and she wanted that building to be perfect. And I knew that when she committed to it, it would be quite a museum," Mrs. Wescoe said.
After cocktails and dinner in the ballroom, guests moved to the museum galleries for a sneak preview of the Spencer's major exhibition of the year, "Les XX and the Belgian Avant-Garde: Prints, Drawings and Books ca. 1890."
The exhibit, which opens today, features the work of a maverick group of turn-of-the-century Belgian artists, and is the largest exhibit on the subject ever mounted in America, Norris said.
JUAN CASSIERS, the Belgian ambassador to the United States, flew to Kansas to view the exhibit.
"It was fascinating for me to be able to judge the work of the artists together," he said. "It is a very important period in the history of art in Belgium."
David Henry, a KU graduate with a master's degree in art history who is now director of the Spanierman Gallery in New York City, said his access to the Spencer's collection as a student helped prepare him for his career.
"Having access to such a fine university museum as the Spencer was a big help to me in learning about art," he said. "It got me started in working with art the way I do now. I don't think a lot of energetic students get that chance in other places."